From school to work
6 MIN READ
Angus and David first met at Four Acres Academy primary school in Bristol when they were six or seven years old and later went on to attend Merchants’ Academy.
Thirteen years later, they are both working at Bank of Ireland in Temple Quay, in Bristol city centre.
On the face of it, this is a straightforward story: Two boys work hard at school and get jobs in a bank. That’s it.
But scratch the surface and there’s a little more to it.
A great city and a city of great inequality
Merchants’ Academy lies in the south part of the city of Bristol four miles from the centre.
Although Bristol is a thriving city, it is also a very unequal one, with big differences in wealth and opportunities between neighbourhoods.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, many local people in south Bristol were employed at a cigarette manufacturing plant – the biggest in Europe – not far from Merchants’ Academy in nearby Hartcliffe.
The factory closed in 1990 and the loss of it and other local employers continues to affect the whole area to this day.
In 2015, Bishport Avenue and Hareclive Road, both just a short walk from Merchants’ Academy, were listed in the top 100 most deprived streets in the UK out of 32,844 areas.
‘Food poverty is very real,’ says Samantha Williamson, the Principal of the Academy. ‘We have 60% of children, here, entitled to free school meals and for some of those children that’s their main meal of the day.
According to an article in the Bristol Post, ‘In its annual State of the Nation report, the Social Mobility Commission found Bristol’s youths struggle to leave poverty, despite it being one of the best places in the UK to work.’
‘But,’ Samantha Williamson says, ‘mental health is the biggest issue.’
The Academy employees its own counsellor to help children deal with anything from anorexia to the effects of witnessing domestic violence as the waiting time for a child to get NHS care can be 12 weeks.
A strong community spirit
But it would be wrong to think that the local community is simply defined by low incomes and deprivation.
‘There’s a strong community spirit, here,’ says Samantha. ‘This is a community that looks after its own and cares for each other.’
The Academy’s motto is ‘Be proud’.
And when I ask Angus and David about the area neither of them says they thought it a tough place to grow up in.
‘Growing up there was pretty alright,’ says Angus who still lives in his family’s home there.
While David says, ‘I lived just by the hill, Dundry, and I could go up Dundry if I just wanted to get out of the way.’
‘I don’t think it’s about whole areas,’ Angus adds. ‘I think it comes down to the kind of individuals who are living in the area.’
Setting high expectations
Samantha Williamson is keenly aware that people outside the area can have a poor opinion of it and is eager those low expectations don’t affect her pupils and perpetuate inequality.
When she became Principal, in 2017, one of the first things she says she did was raise the expectations of the teachers which, in turn, raised the expectations of the children.
The children had hopes and dreams just like any other neighbourhood.
‘We surveyed the whole of Year 9 (13-14-year-olds),’ she says. ‘Every single child wrote down an aspiration ranging from becoming prime minister to astronaut and to apprentice.’
And she is clear that the issue isn’t about a lack of talent or ambition either.
She believes the raw talent is here.
‘The issue is that they don’t know how to make their aspirations real. They don’t have the know-how and they don’t have the know-who,’ she says.
And that is where organisations like Bank of Ireland can make a difference.
How the bank’s relationship with the Academy began
The Society of Merchant Venturers was established by Royal Charter 1552 and first ran a school for the children of mariners, in Bristol, back in 1595.
Today, the Society provides financial support to 8 state-maintained schools, including Merchants’ Academy, responsible for over 3,300 pupils, in total, and many of its members play an active role in the governance of the schools.
Over the past 50 years, a number of CEOs and directors of the Bristol & West Building Society, which became Bank of Ireland UK in the 1990s, were also Merchant Venturers.
So, when Bank of Ireland UK was looking to see how they could better support community activities it was natural that they would support the school.
‘The support that the bank volunteers give to the pupils is priceless,’ says Geoff Matthews, a former Master at the Society of Merchant Venturers and non-executive director of Bank of Ireland UK’s pension fund.
‘It’s worked well both ways. It’s really been excellent. To have the two youngsters come in and start their careers in the bank shows that it can be done.’
The Bank and the Academy
Sue Greenwood-Jones, Head of Mortgage Underwriting, at Bank of Ireland UK tells me she has been volunteering to support Merchants’ Academy for over 12 years now.
In the past, the bank has invited whole year groups of Merchants’ Academy pupils to visit its office in Temple Quay, in Bristol city centre, to learn about the wide range of roles of people working there and to understand the level of qualifications needed.
In the first week of July, the bank offers work experience placements to Academy pupils for a week.
‘Last year we had 7 work experience students,’ says Sue. ‘What we’ve found is the students are very shy at the start of things and by the end of the week it’s lovely when you hear them say ‘we’d love to stay longer’.’
The positive effect of work experience can continue even when the students return to school.
‘We have learned that some students’ attendance and work ethic has improved afterwards because they’ve realised that they need to get a certain level of qualifications to work in places like a bank,’ says Sue.
Earlier this year, Sue also helped organise 25 volunteers from the bank to deliver a personal finance day for 100 students at Merchants’ Academy over a whole school day.
‘The benefit of having such a long-standing relationship with the school is we are never short of volunteers,’ she says.
She has also led school assemblies talking to pupils about things like how to present themselves during a job interview.
A lack of financial awareness
‘One of the issues for our young people,’ says Samantha Williamson, ‘is lack of financial awareness.’
This can affect how they budget their everyday money but it can have more serious consequences like preventing them taking long-term opportunities.
‘They may not apply to go to university because they have no real understanding of how the finance works.
The sums of money involved sound astronomical to them and their parents and they are often not aware of how the loan system works especially and how it is paid back.’
Work experience at Bank of Ireland
‘When you think of a bank you just think of handling money,’ Angus says thinking back to his visit to the bank’s offices as part of a school careers’ trip when he was in Year 7 or 8.
‘But they showed us around and explained all the kind of different roles within the building, the variety of opportunities here.’
Angus and David both went on to get a week’s work experience at Temple Quay.
‘It was only for a week,’ says David, ‘but it made an impact on me. I really enjoyed it to the point where I said ‘I will be back’. And a year and a half later, here I am.’
Angus actually did the week’s work experience twice.
The first time he worked in the service and operations department and the following year he asked to return to work in mortgage underwriting.
Both Angus and David mention, unprompted, how welcoming the people they met in the bank were.
‘They showed you what to do and even if you made a mistake, at first, they showed you again and the atmosphere was just positive,’ says David.
‘The bank has a really good culture from what I’ve seen,’ Angus says. ‘Everyone just seems to get on well.’
Applying for jobs at the bank
Angus remembers discussing applying for a job at Bank of Ireland with David when they were in 6th form and about to sit their A levels.
‘I asked him ‘you did work experience at BOI, would you consider working there?’
The answer was yes.
‘When a job came up in near enough the same place where I did my work experience,’ David admits, ‘I jumped at it.’
Sue Greenwood-Jones is eager to stress that the young men didn’t get any preferential treatment and that they both met the standards the bank applies to all candidates.
The work experience and their familiarity with the bank certainly helped but they got their jobs on merit.
They both remember getting the news that they had been successful.
Angus says, ‘I got an email telling me I’d got the job. It felt pretty good to be honest.’
While David, who was unwell on the day of the interview but still showed up, says, ‘I was really worried after the interview but I found out from a phone call that I’d got it. That was awesome.’
They have now been working full-time for over 9 months.
Where they work now
David works on the post team in service and operations where he handles incoming and outgoing communications.
‘We scan letters onto the system for the case handlers and underwriters and we send them out to the applicants or solicitors,’ he says.
He is working with some of the same Bank of Ireland colleagues he first met when he was on work experience.
Angus first worked in mortgage customer services as a telephone specialist.
‘The role was to take on board customer queries from the first day a mortgage is live to the last and even beyond the end of the mortgage!’
But Angus has already taken the next step in his career.
He started a new job in June as Senior Mortgage Case Manager working with the underwriters some of whom he met when he came on his second work placement.
While David plans to wait and see, ‘if something I like the look of comes along I’ll apply for it or a course I want to do.’
Showing that it is possible
The fact that the two young men now have careers at Bank of Ireland has not gone unnoticed back in the local community.
As Samantha Williamson explains, ‘one of our parents said to me ‘I know about them (Angus and David) because one of them works in my department’.’
‘That’s a good feedback loop and a really good story for the community,’ she adds.
She stresses how important it is for others to see people like them working at the bank and demonstrating that it is possible.
‘It’s really important that children don’t limit themselves by putting themselves in a self-imposed box,’ she says.
The teacher who inspired them both
The two young men both mention a teacher from Merchants’ Academy whom they believe deserves special praise.
‘We had a business teacher, Gareth Bryan, who had a massive impact on us and our grades,’ says Angus of his 6th form teacher for ‘A’ level Business.
‘He had a good technique of using real world examples of businesses and giving us motivation for jobs to go into.’
‘He wasn’t a typical teacher who says ‘we’ve got to do this and that’,’ says David. ‘It’s difficult to explain, it was more like a group thing rather than the teacher and the students. Instead of telling us the answers, he’d lead us to them.’
Encouraging social mobility
Talking about a report published in April 2019, the chair of the Social Mobility Commission, Dame Martina Milburn, said, ‘It is vital that young people have more choice to shape their own lives.
This means not only ensuring that they get better qualifications, but making sure they have an informed choice… …to find a job which is fulfilling and the choice to stay where they grew up rather than moving away.’
‘Last year,’ says Samantha Williamson, ‘for the first time, we got 20 pupils into a variety of universities.’
But she considers Angus and David getting jobs at the bank as equally important.
She is proud of the achievements of all the pupils at Merchants’ academy and regularly praises them on the school’s Twitter feed.
But she is in no doubt that social mobility is still a real, daily struggle for the community.
‘I can give you one, small example,’ she says. ‘To get to the centre of Bristol alone is two bus rides from here and Bristol city does not provide a youth bus pass.
That begins to tell you a story of why there’s little change over a period of ten years for south Bristol: Kids simply haven’t got the means to get out and about.’
Why help from the Bank of Ireland is important
Samantha Williamson describes the relationship with the bank as a two-way process.
‘We are contacted by a lot of organisations offering specific things but Bank of Ireland actually listen to what we need,’ she says.
‘The thing that is great about Bank of Ireland is that what you ask for you get.
Sue comes along and asks me ‘what do you want?’ not ‘this is what we offer’.
Find out more
Discover more about a career at Bank of Ireland here.